Patna/Saran/Muzaffarpur/Vaishali, Bihar: It was past noon and the mobile phone of Kalpana Kumari Singh, headmistress of a government middle school in Patna, started ringing. Without much ado she picked it up and then without speaking punched a few keys and put down the phone. Turning to apologize, she said, “It’s a headache," before adding, “It was a call from a computerized machine to know the attendance in the school. I wish somebody had asked us what chapters we taught today."

Just as she was settling down to the interview, a student walked into the room demanding when she would receive the free books due to her.

“This is what we do most of the time and, often, after the school hours too," she said, pointing to an under-construction school building in the campus. “Teachers, especially the head teacher, are responsible for overseeing building construction. The government thinks we can do everything— from teaching to clerical work like keeping records of students with their caste, gender demarcations, whether students got free books or not, and become engineers to oversee building work. Then there is mid-day meal monitoring. In the last 10 to 15 years, education has got secondary focus," she said.

Clearly the trade-off between optimizing the education infrastructure and imparting quality education is not just becoming difficult, but almost impossible to manage given the limited resources on the one hand and the increasing demand for quality on the other.

Poor infrastructure

Bihar now has one of the largest school systems in the country with 19.2 million students just in the elementary schools (Class 1-8). It spends at least 6% of its state gross domestic product (SGDP) on education as against the national average of 4%. But most of the attention is on getting children into schools.

“There are different challenges. We are now giving focus to quality education. We are hiring a private firm through competitive process to identify and improve this as a pilot, before we scale it up across the state. We know the problem," said primary education secretary Rahul Singh.

Other than the mid-day-meal and Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan, which the central government runs with state governments, Bihar has at least seven other schemes related to uniforms, free cycles, free books and financial assistance. Instead of separate staff to administer these schemes, teachers shoulder the responsibility for implementing, documenting and being accountable to the government. Besides, they have to take on other duties ranging from distributing below the poverty line (BPL) cards to organizing awareness rallies, election duty and other administrative work as and when the district administration asks.

Akhilesh Prasad Sinha, a retired teacher of the school, agreed. “This school was built in 1929. Instead of this getting a heritage status, we have got a municipal garbage dumping ground at the main gate. That’s our tag. If this is the situation in Patna, imagine the situation in far-off places," he said, indicating the structural flaws in the system.

A municipal garbage dumping ground in front of a government middle school in Patna. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint

The problems faced by the school in Patna are not unique. In Chappra, some 80km northwest of Patna, the situation is starker. While the school in Patna has one room for every class, at Hari Har Sharan government middle school, there is no such luxury. Inside the school, 11-year-old Kajal Kumari, 13-year-old Sonu Kumar and 14-year-old Pooja Kumari, from Class 6, 7 and 8, respectively, were being taught together.

The air inside the classroom was thick with the stench of an open sewer outside the windows and garbage dumped next to the school kitchen. Just outside the room, scores of children between Class 1 and Class 3 were busy chatting with each other in the verandah. The next room does duty as the classroom for 4 and 5, the storeroom for mid-day-meal rations and the teachers’ common room.

“It’s sad that everybody talks about the enrolment and mid-day-meals, but nobody talks about quality of school education," said Rupa Kumari, headmistress of another government middle school in Chhapra.

Her school runs from a thatched hall with few facilities. Students sit in separate groups, according to the class they’re in. Tucked behind an overcrowded private nursing home, this school has cut open the thatched roof at places so that light enters the building. Unlike Patna, the computerized attendance system is irregular and they have to maintain paper rolls that display at least six differentiators according to caste and gender.

If the Right to Education Act is implemented in letter, such a school would fail to measure up and may face closure, jeopardizing the education of over 200 students.

According to official data, Bihar needs some 575,324 classrooms for its 70,238 schools but there are only 276,325 classrooms available across the state. Saran district, where 23 students died after eating a mid-day meal that had been contaminated with toxins, alone needs 21,460 classrooms but has 9,887.

“In Bihar, the problem is not all about infrastructure. It’s about implementation," argued Yamini Aiyar, director of the Accountability Initiative at New Delhi-based Centre for Policy Research.

According to Prabhat P. Ghosh, professor at the Asian Development Research Institute in Patna, Bihar’s education ecosystem has three dimensions—infrastructural deficiency, shortage of teachers, and governance.

“In Bihar, we have schools under the tree, and schools running from somebody’s house," he said. “It’s not a desirable situation but a reality here." According to official data, more than 8,500 schools have neither their own building nor land.

“Several government schemes have certainly got students to schools but if you look at the attendance rate, it’s not beyond 70%," Ghosh said. “And that is the effective enrolment rate as against the government’s claim of near 100%. This is a structural problem and the mid-day meal tragedy is the tip of the iceberg."

After the 16 July incident, the state has reported four more cases of students falling ill.

Teacher deficit

Though Bihar currently has 349,871 teachers, it needs at least 200,000 more. Of the total teachers in place, 195,237 don’t have “minimum professional qualifications".

According to the primary education secretary Singh, of these, more than 150,000 are now enrolled in teachers’ training courses of Indira Gandhi National Open University (IGNOU).

In Saraya block of Muzaffarpur, one of the progressive districts in the state, there are some 250 schools for the 60,000 students. Of the 2,000 teachers required as per the Right to Education Act, the block has only 1,143 teachers, said Vijay Kumar Jha, block education officer. Of the total 1,143 teachers available, 873 are on contract—of this 573 are untrained—and 270 are on tenure.

Ghosh said a survey by his institute shows that “every Bihar school has an average 3.7 teachers. The absenteeism rate is 20%, which means, effectively there are three teachers to run a primary school (Class-1-5)". Beyond teaching, they have their problem of managing several schemes, including mid-day meals.

“Teacher deficiency is a bigger problem than school infrastructure. One may manage without books and buildings as you can share it, but what about the teachers?" Ghosh asked.

Pramath Raj Sinha, the founding dean of the Indian School of Business, Hyderabad, said, “The quality of education, whether it’s in a primary school or a business school depends on the quality of teachers. The administrators need to feel for it. In Bihar, it seems nobody cares about the quality."

According to him, the law and order situation in Bihar has improved significantly and this has helped Bihar’s positive image.

“But if you look at the education space, there is nothing much to show in terms of qualitative growth. The state government needs to bring in private investment in education but the state does not seem to be on the side of private players," he said.

The teachers disagree.

“Ten years after I completed my teacher’s training programme, the state did not give me a job. Now, I have a job but look at my salary—it is less than 6,500. How will you concentrate on school when six people are depending on you," said Mansoor Ahmed Ansari, a school teacher in the Garkha block of Saran district. His colleague Manoranjan Sharma had to wait for 15 years to get an appointment.

Arguing similarly, Ram Ashray Ram, another teacher in Chappra, said, “Every evening and on holidays, I work in a trunk repairing shop along with my brother. If you pay me a salary of 15,000, my attention will be completely on education," Ram said.

In Bihar, contract teachers get paid 6,000 to 7,500 a month as against a regular teacher’s salary that varies between 25,000 and 40,000.

Further, the appointments of contract teachers are often political, since the decision is taken by the village head, or the sarpanch.

In the final analysis, it is clear that the mid-day meal tragedy has put the spotlight on the abysmal state of the education ecosystem in Bihar. Since there are no quick-fix solutions and the government is sufficiently distracted after the split in the ruling coalition, the fear is that such tragedies may well recur.

This is the fourth and concluding part of a series on Bihar.

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